Nobody ever said working in public health was easy. The workforce deals with some of the biggest challenges touching every facet of our communities, from improving school nutrition to combating infectious disease to supporting affordable housing.

These issues (and many, many more) were highlighted at the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) annual meeting Nov. 2-6 in Philadelphia. But for all the frustrations that come with working in public health, APHA 2019 also demonstrated just as many reasons to celebrate its immense role in making healthier, safer, and more equitable communities.

Learn how leaders at APHA 2019 underscored the power of public health and centered the importance of prevention in discussions.

Shifting the Narrative

 A common refrain in public health was heard throughout APHA 2019: For a country that spends $3.6 trillion on healthcare, the United States has dismal health outcomes. That’s why public health is leading the charge to move from a sick-care system to a health-promoting system.

Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, discussed the importance of investing in science, supporting the public health workforce, and keeping social determinants of health at the forefront. It’s an exciting era for public health, he said, and we’re getting closer to a health system based in prevention over treatment. “If we push correctly,” he said, “you can see all of the incentives in the healthcare system that I grew up in, which was disease, disease, disease, be shifted to prevention, prevention, prevention.”

 Honoring Public Health

It’s tempting to tout the long-term cost savings of public health when defending its worth. But it’s not all about the money — and that’s okay, explained Aaron Carroll, professor and associate dean for research mentoring, and health services researcher at the Indiana University School of Medicine. He explained that focusing too heavily on any potential economic benefits of public health interventions detracts from their greater purpose in helping people become healthier, more productive, and enjoy a better quality of life. “Prevention is an outcomes good, and sometimes things cost money,” he said.

He added that while it’s assumed that healthcare is expensive because it’s so valuable, there is an expectation that public health doesn’t require the same level of investment. In reality, he said, “We can do so much more in terms of people’s lives with prevention and public health than we often can do in healthcare.”

Uplifting Health Equity

Public health practitioners aren’t afraid to tackle tough issues, especially when addressing health disparities. Instead of simply seeking to solve the problem at hand, practitioners consider the bigger picture, exploring the structural forces that influence longstanding disparities. This mindset is critical in working toward better health for all.

“When we talk about prevention, we must talk about the importance of advancing and achieving health equity for the nation,” said J. Nadine Gracia, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Trust for America’s Health. Even as the United States becomes more diverse, we continue to see health disparities, Gracia said. And it’s up to public health practitioners to keep raising their voices in support of people disproportionately affected by these inequities.

Finding Common Ground

Few professions allow the workforce to engage with people from a range of backgrounds, cultures, and interests as much as public health does. That makes public health practitioners well-suited to speak to people outside the field in a way that resonates with them.

“The conversation around prevention is one that requires getting out of our lane,” said Kara Odom Walker, cabinet secretary for the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services. It’s just a matter of finding the right words to make a connection. She explained that this strategy helped reduce unintended pregnancies in Delaware. Public health practitioners found a shared language with policymakers, framing the issue as one with economic, social, and educational consequences warranting their concern. It’s yet another example of how when public health workers bring nontraditional partners to the table, speaking their language can make a huge difference.

Telling the Story of Public Health

Public health is often considered invisible, only noticed when something goes awry. But those instances don’t capture the countless livessaved and health outcomes improved by public health interventions. It’s time to highlight these stories. Major gatherings like APHA are just one way for public health practitioners to share their stories. Every day presents an opportunity to serve as a messenger for public health, be it through social media, at legislative hearings, or in casual conversation.

“We need nothing less than a world that generates health,” said Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health. “That’s what we need, that’s public health, and that’s the story we must tell. Because if we do not tell the story, who else will?”

Read highlights from the second annual Public Health Tweetup, presented by APHA and the de Beaumont Foundation.

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